Shaft (2000)

D: John Singleton
S: Samuel L. Jackson, Jeffrey Wright

Anaemic remake/update of the 1971 hit Shaft, which despite a directing credit for African-American political filmmaker John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Higher Learning) and the foregrounding of its elements of racial politics is less challenging than its predecessor as a portrait of black America. Now, let us be clear here, Shaft (1971) was not a political drama. It was a risky lowish-budget detective thriller which happened to be set in a distinctive environment rich in racial tension (New York of the early 1970s). It also featured the most singular African-American central character yet seen on the American screen; the no-nonsense private eye John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) who was trusted by neither side of the racial divide and didn't really care. This Shaft happened to be rich with interesting detail about contemporary America simply because by setting its story in this environment and using this character, the film spoke volumes about what was happening to black America both on screen and off. Singleton's remake comes from a different era both in cinematic and broader cultural terms. There has been a generation of sporadic representation of African-American issues from filmmakers like Spike Lee and Singleton himself which have changed the way such films are made. What was called 'blaxpolitation' once allowed various repressed and/or disguised themes and questions concerning African-American identity to emerge under the guise of a violent rush of escapist fantasy. But this kind of textual smuggling isn't needed anymore (or at least not quite to the same extent), and so, appropriately, the new Shaft wears its contexts on its sleeve. Singleton has not set out to make a political film as such, but he is extremely conscious of various political concerns (not least of all political correctness). He has attempted to repeat the trick pulled by the original and make good pulp which speaks for itself. In one sense, he has succeeded. Shaft (2000) is about average action thriller fare, replete with violent death at every turn, explosions, car chases and plenty of hard-assed one-liners. Yet is it also laden with sub-texts, conscious and unconscious, and in attempting to soften the edge of righteous anger which drove the original, redress the sexual imbalance and sexual politics which caused many a hoot and holler in 1971, and rejig the racial politics for the millennium, something valuable has been lost. This Shaft is a pale echo of his forebear in every sense (pun intended).

The story is supposedly based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman, but the on screen credit to Singleton and Shane Salerno with a screenplay by Richard Price (Clockers), Singleton, and Salerno suggests otherwise. John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson of The Negotiator and Rules of Engagement) is an NYPD detective who finds himself at odds with the system when a rich, white racist murderer (Christian Bale of American Psycho) bails himself out before trial and goes in search of the only witness who can prove he did it (Toni Collette of The Sixth Sense and Muriel's Wedding). Bale teams up with Latin-American gangster Jeffrey Wright, and Jackson eventually goes out on his own to stop them when he realises that the system is both inept and corrupt and therefore cannot be relied upon. Essentially, it is a complete rewriting of the character and the setting for the time in which it has been made. Using the more conventional vigilante/outlaw format long established by films which occupy the opposite side of the racial divide (Death Wish, Dirty Harry), making its antagonist a sneering pantomime villain, and adding touch of racism of its own in its characterisation of Wright and his gang, the film is not so much a successor to Shaft as it is another simplistic right wing action movie in the mould of countless others made and condemned throughout the 1980s and 90s in which the racial roles are simply reversed. Meanwhile, in a feeble attempt to make up for the sins against feminism committed by his predecessor in a pre-PC world, this John Shaft is clumsily lumbered with a strong female sidekick (note the paradox) played by Vanessa Williams. Also, rather like the latter day James Bond, he fails to prove himself the stud that Roundtree did, and the film is singularly lacking in sexuality other than in the stylised credit sequence. So, lacking either the apolitical committedness of his progenitor or the cynical bedroom skills, this John Shaft is left with a laudable but incredible desire to see justice done and an ability to murder and maim people without flinching (although Jackson is still a more lightweight presence than Roundtree was in terms of ass-kicking). Not quite Shaft as we knew him then.

Ah, but then there's Roundtree himself. Sneakily, the authors here include a character played by Richard Roundtree who is also named John Shaft and happens to be the uncle of this film's eponymous hero. This suggests that rather than a remake, this is a much belated sequel to the last Shaft adventure (Shaft in Africa, although there was also a short-lived TV series featuring Roundtree). Fans will find this shred of inventive plotting some consolation, not least of all because in his few scenes, Uncle J. demonstrates some of the character's familiar charisma (including a scene which suggests he's up to his old tricks in the woman department despite what the council for sexual equality might have to say). So that's it: that makes everything all right, doesn't it? Alas, no. Stripped of its subtextual richness, artificially injected with a faux postmodern 'cool' and worn down with cosy, calculated, and articulated political themes,Shaft is just another action movie. Okay, so Shaft (1971) was just a detective movie, but it was a distinctive one at the time in which it was made. There is nothing either distinctive or distinguished about Singleton's Shaft. It doesn't so much capture the pulse of its time as represent the collapse of mainstream cinema's ability to do anything but refer to itself and its own history in search of meaning. It is well made, generally entertaining, and David Arnold's retro score makes copious use of Isaac Hayes' legendary theme music. These, and the fleeting presence of Roundtree, make it an entertaining night out at the movies if you're not in the mood for something meatier, but this film has no inner life and will undoubtedly prove a footnote in the history of the original rather than a defining moment in a new epoch of the cinematic representation of African-Americans. Whether or not you care is of course up to you, but in the final analysis there is more of interest in X-Men than there is here, and if you want to see Shaft, you're better off going back to the source.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.